This month I revisited 1968, one of the most earth-shattering years in our city’s (and nation’s) 20th century history. What I discovered was 1968 wasn’t a year unto itself. There were strong lead-ins and the events added urgency to important initiatives for communities and individuals.
I didn’t want to tell this story from my perspective alone. I didn’t want to tell it only from the perspectives of “movement people.” We’ve heard and will always hear their stories. I invited 11 other voices and perspectives. The people who had to show up for work or go to school the day after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. The result is “Riot. Rebellion. Resurrection.” or #RRR1968 the cover story for the April 5, 2018 edition of Washington City Paper (WCP) . It’s an oral history with some wonderful original photos by WCP photographer Darrow Montgomery.
Historian Marya McQuirter and I had a conversation in 2017 about how to approach 1968. We were both planning projects. She decided to produce an online daily calendar (dc1968project.com) of events from that year. I wanted to focus on H Street in my 50 year “retro-perspective” but wasn’t sure about theming it solely on the “riots” which some would correct me by saying “rebellion” or “uprising.” My politics obviously haven’t lean in any specific direction about it.
I decided to take on the “R” in all its humanity, personally adopting the old-school civic term “civil unrest”. However it’s characterized, these events didn’t happen on a whim, in a vacuum and without an incident to ignite the tinderbox of infractions on civil rights, racial injustice, and economic disparities. The violent murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. April 5, 1968 and the days “riot, rebellion” that followed should not have caught anyone by surprise. Yet it did in DC. Even the cover story photo taken in 1968 near 14th & Park Road took some by surprise. “No that didn’t happen this week. It’s a 50-year-old photo.” Those reactions said something to me about what may lie beneath our city’s transparent steel and glass facades.
My Hard Revolutionplaylist was pumping out of the speakers in The LINE hotel lobbies. WCP added it to its website. Hard Revolution is a crime novel by George Pelecanos (HBO “The Deuce”). The playlist was one of my early ideas for looking back at DC in 1968. I plugged into the SoundCloud website and played it while writing my article.
“Riot. Rebellion. Resurrection.” became the #RRR1968 live event at The LINE Hotel in DC the day of publication. The live event became a podcast. You can listen to it here.
#RRR1968 became a trans media project for me and Washington City Paper. Poet and literary activist E. Ethelbert Miller (If God Invented Baseball), one of the subjects in the article hosts “The Scholars” television show on UDC TV (University of the District of Columbia). Though I’ve been on the radio with Ethelbert, I knew it was going to take something extra special to sit at the table with him in the television studio. It would take 50 years to get here.
Before the Monday broadcast the next Marvel blockbuster movie, Black Panther, will have its nationwide release staring Howard University graduate Chadwick Boseman — the #HBCU alumni of the hour who’s been gracing the covers of Vanity Fair and Time magazine. – for starters
FULL DISCLOSURE: I’ve been involved with both entities past and present: organizing a 10 HBCU campus tour for Tell Them We Are Rising (and preview screenings for ITVS, producers of “Independent Lens”); being the playwright for Iola’s Letter — based on the life of journalist, anti-lynching advocate Ida B. Wells — presented as a staged reading at Howard University exactly at this time in 1999 with then-student Chadwick Boseman (or Chad as he was known then) in the cast. The play was directed by Howard drama professor Vera J. Katz.
“I thank God and the ancestors for this opportunity.”
Chadwick Boseman in “Iola’s Letter” program 1999
It’s no surprise to me that Chadwick Boseman’s star is rising. He impressed me as Thomas Moss in the reading of Iola’s Letter. Thomas Moss was one of Ida B. Wells’ dearest friends in Memphis in 1892. Boseman became the voice of Thomas Moss in my head for a long while after the sold-out 8 performances (a 9th was added).
Much of my cultural enrichment from age 9 up came from Howard Universityand its College of Fine Arts. The students and professors (my sister’s classmates and instructors) trained my eyes, ears, and appreciation especially in theater of the mosaic of what some may classify as “the black experience.” I would argue for the plural in “experience”.
Without Howard I would have no idea what the Black Arts Movement is, would not have read the poems of Langston Hughes, or folklore and laughter of Zora Neale Hurston, known of the African presence in antiquity (Frank Snowden), been in the presense of a great artist like Lois Mailou Jones, or to put it bluntly have exposure to the best in arts and culture of the African diaspora. Howard spoiled me for the experience I would have at the small PWI college I attended. Note: PWI (Predominantly White Institution) is something I learned on the road with Tell Them We Are Rising.
That PWI was Oberlin College in Ohio. It was my first PWI in my entire academic life. I chose Oberlin because it was the first to admit students of color before HBCUs were established; was in the same Ohio town with an underground railroad stop in the time of Civil War; the alma mater of the first African American woman to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree; and was [at the time] located in a pre-dominantly African American town of the same name with a sizeable Latino population in nearby Lorain the birthplace of Howard alumna Toni Morrison. During my first weeks on campus I distinctly remember the “plague of robins” as Morrision describes in her novel Sula.
I also noticed the cultural footprint of African Americans at Oberlin was not very big or not what I was accustomed to despite the college’s glorious histories. The conservatory of music at the time was committed to a European Classical music training. There were jazz classes and a class on African American music history taught by the late Wendell Logan, but these were electives. The jazz ensemble didn’t have rehearsal or performance space inside the conservatory. Fortunately Logan was a “can do” and “will do” personality. Just book the hall.
The jazz ensemble was one of the few places where I felt grounded in the way I was grounded on HBCU turf. And even with great theatrical talents like Julie Taymor among Oberlin’s illustrious alumni, theater and dance wasn’t on the level of what I saw at Howard. Those expectations were to be had in Cleveland and Karamu founded by Oberlin alumni Russell and Rowena Jelliffe where Howard professors and alumni could be seen in residence.
What Oberlin did offer me was exposure to different art forms including performance art and artists like Ping Chong and Meredith Monk. My dorm mates brought their grounding assets – El Gran Combo, Hector Lavoe, Ruben Blades, Willie Colon, Celia Cruz and other classic salsa recordings. And I got some reinforcements from visiting artists like Gil Scott-Heron, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, poet Sonya Sanchez, choreographer/performer Geoffrey Holder. My HBCU arts experience planted seeds of appreciation and found complimentary companions in new expressions including the old European Classical ones.
My college also gave students resources and space for experimentation. I’ve always been a hands-on learner. If I wanted to put up a play at my PWI college, no problem. “Here’s a space. What else do you need?” Despite some of the quips I mentioned earlier, this made Oberlin the best choice for someone like myself.
“I’d like to thank God and the ancestors for this experience.”
Chadwick Boseman in the program for “A Rhyme Deferred,” written and directed by Kamilah Forbes
In the fantasy world of Wakanda, I still see the Howard alum’s feet firmly planted in the opportunities and experiences he draws from the ancestors. I see the bridges between past, present, and future. I knew as much seeing a video of the red carpet preview of Black Panther in Los Angeles and drummer Jabari Exum grounding the moment before Boseman emerges from the limo. In some ways I was more excited about seeing Exum, an awesome surprise appearance from DC.
At the time my Iola’s Letter play went up, a Hip Hop Theatre movement was emerging among Howard’s students as well as a collaborative of young artists creating new works based on a Hip Hop aesthetic. That circle included Boseman and fellow classmates Hi-ARTS aka Hip Hop Theatre Festival co-founder Kamilah Forbes (currently executive producer for the Apollo in Harlem), and Helen Hayes award winning choreographer/director Gregory Morrison aka Psalmayene 24. On the back of my A Rhyme Deferred program, I notice a shout out to fellow Howard student Ta-Nehisi Coates among many others. Some are now among the ancestors.
I’m no Hip Hop head but I supported these creators and their movements towards a new aesthetic before “In the Heights” and “Hamilton”. I knew my love for historical drama would not qualify me to be part of this inner circle. Yet, my introduction was again through my Howard (HBCU) connection.
What Stanley Nelson gives us in Tell Them We Are Rising is a story that inspires pride and a new look at the value of HBCUs for alumni, prospective students, and persons like myself (who didn’t attend a HBCU) without leaning on the sepia-tinted, cross-fade doo-wop of Black girls in White Edwardian dresses, Black boys in bowlers, and a backup band of rich and famous alumni.
Stanley Nelson is also the filmmaker for the documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (currently on Netflix). Even that documentary kicks off with myth busting. As Nelson described during his classroom visits at Claflin in SC, he wanted the audience to see what they wouldn’t expect from a documentary about the Black Panther Party. Every one and anyone connected to the Black Panther Party had a different perspective, experience, or opportunity. And of course, you can’t capture them all in 90 minutes.
HBCU administrations have struggled with students who want to move their programs forward from the mythical past. The sepia-tinted world and American dream promises are often held up to qualify the value of the institution for preparing students to assimilate respectfully into what can be called the “social order”. Sadly the cultural and artistic assets of these institutions are simultaneously neglected, undervalued, and/or rejected and lost. This parochial house cannot stand when it is divided between limiting traditional values and new ideas.
Alain Locke learned as much when he was fired from Howard University’s philosophy department in 1925 for siding with students who were being encountered and embracing the ideas of the “New Negro”. BTW Locke also had PWI experiences at Harvard and Oxford Universities. This and other stories are included in a ground-breaking biography The New Negro: The Life of Alain Lock” by Jeffrey C. Stewart. I see a tinge of “New Negroness” in the conceptualization of Wakanda in Black Panther – a fusion of modernism (tech today), continental African aesthetics, and the ability to transform and reversion oneself in times of crisis and awareness (African American).
I’ll see Black Panther on the same #HBCURisingDay before the 9 PM broadcast of Tell Them We Are Rising. I’m in that throng of ticket buyers who took advantage of advance sales. I’ll see it for Chadwick Boseman though I wish there was this much excitement around his previous films — ’42, Get On Up, Marshall. Maybe people will catch up on the stream. I’d like to think my Ida B. Wells play helped pave that trajectory. I also enjoy the comic book hero films for pure entertainment value. They’re becoming America’s 21st century mythology.
If there are any shoulders the Black Panther filmmaker, cast and crew stand on it is stories, cultural treasures, and experiences, fortunately documented by Stanley Nelson and many others. The power of the myth is strong, but making connections between myth and fundamental truths is essential.
I too would like to thank these creators, the ancestors, and the source of all creation for the gift of opportunities and experiences I’ll treasure for my lifetime. Much of it is possible thanks to my HBCU encounters. On the day I graduated from Oberlin I wore a cap and gown. Cap and gown was optional at Oberlin. Students chose not to wear them in protest of the 1970 Kent State student shootings by the National Guard. A similar incident would happen in 1972 at Southern, a HBCU in Louisiana. Their story is revealed in Tell Them We Are Rising.
I draped a long strip of woven kente (a gift from my sister) around my shoulders. I believe I was the first non-Ghanaian at Oberlin to add kente to the graduation robe. That choice was inspired by Jeff Donaldson, an art professor at Howard and a member of the Africobra artist collective in Chicago during the Black Arts Movement. On graduation day at HU Donaldson walked with the professors in his grand robe and regalia of beautiful hand-woven kente. You couldn’t miss him. I never forgot it.
The first 10 words in Toni Cade Bambara’s novel The Salt Eaters never cease to move me:
“Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?”
Before you answer, consider the next sentence.
“…Just so’s you’re sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you’re well.”
Wellness or wholeness have been hard to come by in recent months.
I‘m never sure if wellness is a priority in this culture. So many political points are gained when things fester and bleed and someone rushes in with the cure and saves the day vs. preventing the illness, preparing for the worst or de-escalating. On-going diplomacy doesn’t make good drama.
We’re talking about nuclear war again. Have we swallowed the wrong pill? Or has the Marvel movie fantasy franchise where superheroes survive catastrophic battles become our visual hallucinogenic? Though an interesting and useful narrative and analysis on power struggles for better and worse, the superhero and intergalactic war fantasies fail to remind us how fragile we humans really are. We embrace imperfection and I suppose that’s the primary attraction in the first place. Any problem can be solved by imperfect beings with unearthly powers. We can survive anything through pluck and luck. But is that living or being well?
Though these superheroes are now being held accountable on real world terms for the collateral damage from their battles with genocidal villains to restore a sense of “order”, we rarely see the ordinary mortal local folks coming out from their hiding places looking at the destruction and figuring out how to clean up the mess or where to bury their dead if they can find them in the rubble. Can we rebuild? How many years before the cities are inhabitable, if at all? Let’s not forget trauma. How do you cure that? When will we feel well and whole again? These questions frame real narratives in today’s real world.
Storytellers haven’t taken on the subject of thermonuclear annihilation in the same way they did in 1983, a direct response to the last years of the Cold War arms race between the US and USSR (aka Russia) with the release of “War Games” (1983), “Testament” (1983) and “The Day After.” In fact, “The Day After” was presented as a must-see national television event with a panel following the film. The 1980s took the apocalyptic scenario seriously featuring everyday people whose only powers were empathy and a desperate desire to be well after it was too late. We all got a taste of a real life moment caused by a sickness that released the mushroom cloud of fire. Bottom line the sickness kills.
Sports medicine might be a temporary remedy. The upcoming Winter Olympics in South Korea has signaled a neighborly thaw between North and South Korea, or a low dose aspirin to lower the fever. Nevertheless, one keeps a one-eye-open button on his desk. We’ve all seen that red button in the movies or television. It launches the attack or the distress signal. This fever makes it difficult to tell which button is which.
Here in the US we talk about codes and a box that accompanies the President everywhere. But now this President orders a button too, bigger. One button against another button. How can we be so infected by these carriers whose buttons can be so easily pressed. The buttons should be configured to call in a nurse.
More and more we must decide if we want to be well, if we want to be whole in 2018. It is up to everyday people to take preventative measures and find healthy alternatives, remedies, and perhaps a cure. But first we have to want it. Wholeness carries weight of maintenance because there’s a lot of sickness around us. But it’s never as heavy as dead weight.
We are not superheroes who can only realize their purpose in grandiose life or death situations. We can carry our loads together. We can aspire to wellness and manage the weight of being whole.
And know this… about those first 10 words in The Salt Eaters. They come from the mouth of a healer to a woman in a hospital having failed to commit suicide.
We remember the Magi,
Observers of stars, Evidence-based seekers
Who found their way to kneel before a baby.
May we, too, kneel before life’s intricate mysteries
Following the path of science-based searchers for truth
We remember Mary,
Birth-mother of a revolutionary prophet
The fetus in her womb a surprise,
Her choice a decision to magnify her hope,
The birth difficult,
Attended by a beautiful diversity of animals,
And a rag-tag gathering of vulnerable people.
May we too, kneel at the cradle of earth’s dreams for peace
And dedicate ourselves to revolutionary love.
We remember Joseph,
Who embraced the baby as his own
Believing that every child has a God-given entitlement to love and care.
May we too, stand by the women and children of this world
When patriarchal privilege and power threaten their freedom
And put their well-being at risk.
We remember the Angels
Singing in a cold night to the over-taxed poor,
Promising peace and goodwill to all.
May we echo their song in acts of solidarity and justice
For all souls—refugee souls, green souls, disabled souls,
Black souls, young souls, transgender souls.
May we join the bold, holy movement
To bring heaven to earth.
May the Morning Star brighten our hope for a new day,
And may laughter strengthen all our prayers. AMEN
Wednesday, September 13 I produced readings from a revised version of my first full-length play Iola’s Letter with an extended title: Iola’s Letter: The Memphis Crusade of Ida B. Wells. The reading was presented with the Hill Center on Capitol Hill – close to the power and the people who connect with the themes of this play. The timing couldn’t be better.
The undressed reading at the Hill Center by the cast under the direction of Michi Jones gave new life to the words for the audience to connect the dots and once again sadly resonate with the saying, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Ida B. Wells challenges all who embrace a passion for justice in ways that can make you uncomfortable. She was an unapologetic moralist, and asserted her rights as written in the Bill of Rights and that included the 1st and 2nd amendments. Ida was relentless, and the word often attributed to can- and will-do women like her – difficult. In 1892, her outspoken writings on lynching cost the journalist her Memphis newspaper, Free Speech, and forced her into exile…in Chicago.
Public and published efforts to silence Ida B. Wells made her one of the most famous newspaper women and activists of her time. Frederick Douglass would become a mentor; and she co-founded the NAACP with W.E.B. DuBois. Ida B. Wells-Barnett (after her marriage to attorney and newspaper owner Ferdinand Barnett of Chicago) was a founder and activist in women’s clubs serving persons in need, advanced the campaign for civil rights, and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with suffragists for women’s rights.
I love historical drama. Many fans enjoy the beautiful “period” costumes, settings, and a chance to be swept away to another time. In the case of Iola’s Letter based on those real-life events in Memphis, Tennessee in 1892, there’s no need for the period dress up. The story, set in the post-Reconstruction South, is sadly familiar, even contemporary. In my introduction I describe the play as a series of conversations around unresolved issues around racial injustice, class, and the hopes and dreams of communities who are striving to build futures under hostile circumstances.
My play has its history too. Between Anita Hill’s testimony during Clarence Thomas’s SCOTUS confirmation hearings (1991) and the dragging death of James Byrd, Jr. by white supremacists in Jasper Texas (1998), I was contemplating, writing, and preparing Iola’s Letter for its first staged reading at Howard University directed by [professor emeritus] Vera J. Katz. Neither events were the impetus for this play, but the conversations certainly informed key themes: an African American woman whose words were disputed and characterized as doing more harm than good; an African American man tortured and killed because of the color of his skin.
How would Ida have responded to then Supreme Court nominee Thomas’ claim of a “high tech lynching”?. Would Ida, if there was “social media” in her toolkit, direct Justice Thomas to view the multiple videos of Black men and women being shot, assaulted, by persons known or unknown, including persons authorized to “uphold the law.” Would Ida just repost the video or investigate?
….I did not come to bring peace, but a sword ~ Matthew 10:34 I New Testament
The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them. ~ Ida B. Wells-Barnett
The role of the press cannot be understated in this scenario. I wish there was more time after the reading to talk with the guest speakers. Jonetta Rose Barras, a community organizer turned journalist who embodies the Ida B. Wells spirit; and Dan Moldea, an investigative reporter who like Ida is willing to put his hands into the corruption therewith of a story. I wish there was more time to talk with the audience. The play triggered something in the room and for the persons who had the opportunity to speak, they gave testimony, shared information and concerns. Perhaps all the questions on this topic have been exhausted, except one — What are our next steps?